Backlash for challenging influence of Israel Lobby on campus
In the spring of 2014, following a campus divestment debate, UCLA students raised concerns about the influence of Israel lobby organizations on campus. A coalition of student groups organized an “ethics pledge” asking student government candidates not to accept free trips sponsored by organizations that promote discriminatory and Islamophobic positions. This request included trips sponsored by organizations such as the ADL, AIPAC, and Hasbara Fellowships. SJP also filed charges with student judicial council, asking it to consider whether accepting such trips to Israel should be considered a material conflict of interest under UCLA student bylaws.
Zionist organizations on and off campus characterized the ethics pledge and the judicial council case as “intolerance,” “harassment,” and “bullying” of Jewish students, claiming they made Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. The AMCHA Initiative issued a letter and action alert, and had a personal meeting with Chancellor Block, demanding that SJP be investigated and sanctioned.
The students advocating for the ethics pledge and the judicial council case extensively explained that their efforts were motivated by their experiences of racial bias and discrimination and concern about Israeli state practices. But UCLA Chancellor Gene Block ignored SJP’s concerns and responded to the heavy off-campus pressure by issuing a statement “on civil discourse” that characterized SJP’s advocacy as unwise intimidation, even if protected by the First Amendment. UC system-wide President Janet Napolitano also condemned the student campaign as violating principles of “civility, respect, and inclusion.”
Targeted by the LA City Council
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles City Council responded over the summer by proposing a resolution to condemn student advocacy against the Israeli lobby on campus. It mischaracterized student advocacy as “bullying” and “harassment,” and urged the University of California to restrict their speech activity. The resolution also urged the UC to refer cases of “intimidation or harassment” (and by clear implication, the advocacy activities of SJP) to “the proper law enforcement agencies.”
Palestine Legal wrote to the Council warning that “if passed, this Resolution would violate the LA City Council’s obligations under the First Amendment … by directing the UC to censor political debate on campus on a specific issue. The Resolution casts exactly the “pall of orthodoxy” over the UC on matters of public concern that the Supreme Court has proscribed.” The ACLU of Southern California, the National Lawyers Guild of LA and other civil rights organizations signed-on to the letter. The resolution did not move forward in the City Council.
Throughout the campaign of legal bullying, SJP continued organizing for Palestinian rights on campus, and the following semester, they succeeded in passing a divestment resolution in their student government.
Falsely accused of creating an anti-Semitic climate
A few months after passing divestment, in February 2015, student government council members wrongly questioned Rachel Beyda, a nominee for the student judicial board, about whether she could maintain objectivity given her Jewish identity. The campus community roundly condemned the questioning, including Students for Justice in Palestine, and the council members themselves.
The incident set off a media frenzy of concern over anti-Semitism on campuses, allegedly caused by criticism of Israel and divestment debates on campus. The New York Times covered the story on the front page, claiming that it reflects “a surge of hostile sentiment directed against Jews at many campuses in the country, often a byproduct of animosity toward the policies of Israel” and noting that “this is one of many campuses where the student council passed, on a second try and after fierce debate, a resolution supporting the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at pressuring Israel.” Haaretz ran a headline, “On-campus BDS is feeding anti-Semitism: UCLA is case in point.”
Despite SJP’s efforts, very little mainstream media coverage included their perspective, or questioned the narrative that advocacy for Palestinian rights causes anti-Semitism on campus.
Resolution re-defined anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel
Following the anti-Semitic questioning of the judicial board nominee, on March 10, 2015 the undergraduate council passed a “Resolution Condemning Anti-Semitism” that re-defined anti-Semitism to encompass almost any criticism of Israeli policies.
The re-definition included what’s called the “3 Ds” – “demonization, delegitimization and applying a double-standard” to the state of Israel – a formulation that brands advocates for Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic by blurring the important distinction between criticism of Israel as a nation-state and anti-Semitism. Jewish Voice for Peace wrote that the re-definition “further enshrines long-standing political efforts to silence legitimate criticism of the state of Israel by codifying its inclusion in the definition of anti-Semitism.”
Palestine Legal published, “What to Know About Efforts to Re-define Anti-Semitism to Silence Criticism of Israel” explaining that what is termed the “State Department definition of anti-Semitism” or the “3 Ds” has dubious legal authority and chilling consequences for open debate.